What this digital shift means for people with disabilities in SEA

The Southeast Asian region (SEA) can pride itself in being one of the most promising markets for technology in the world.

To start, the region is home to over 650 million people or 8.5 per cent of the world’s population. A digital wave is also sweeping SEA led by tech-savvy millennials. Internet connectivity and mobile phone use are rapidly increasing.

In 2019, SEA saw a double-digit growth in internet penetration, mobile connectivity, and social media penetration. It now has over 400 million internet users.

Local tech startups have taken advantage of this. SEA is home to 10 unicorns including ride-hailing platform Grab, online marketplace Lazada, and digital content and entertainment company VNG. The region’s internet economy is predicted to hit US$300 billion in 2025.

However, one crucial aspect that must not be overlooked in all this growth is digital accessibility. The rapid digital adoption in the region is steadily prompting people to shift their daily activities online.

Elsewhere in the world, accessibility has become quite the hot topic. Laws such as the US’ Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the European Accessibility Act provide for equal access to people with disabilities.

Just last year, pizza chain Domino’s lost a case filed by a blind man claiming that Domino’s website was not accessible to visually impaired users. The ruling affirmed that accessibility laws cover digital channels.

More parties are filing similar claims and suits prompting businesses to bring their websites and applications up to standards. And now, Radioshack was recent sued.

Also Read: These 8 Southeast Asian startups work with people with disabilities to build a more inclusive society

The W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is currently in revision 2.1 and promotes support for a variety of disabilities including visual, auditory, motor, and cognitive impairments. Companies are striving to achieve compliance with these standards.

Since then, businesses started looking for ways to improve their site’s accessibility.

Even solutions providers are actively looking to advance digital accessibility. Recently, leading web design publication Web Designer Depot reviewed AccessiBe, an accessibility software that leverages AI to make websites compliant with the WCAG and usable to people with disabilities. The company recently secured a US$12 million round led by private equity K1.

Searches for the ADA and the WCAG rose by more than 400 per cent after the Domino’s case was validated. But while demand for digital accessibility is increasing elsewhere in the world, things appear to be progressing slower on the SEA front.

As of this writing, popular e-commerce marketplaces in the region such as Lazada and Shopee still have accessibility issues if check using web accessibility evaluation tools. This likely means that users with disabilities who try to access these platforms may not be able to enjoy the convenience that these platforms offer.

There are already accessibility laws and efforts being put in place but there still remains a gap in implementation.

In the Philippines, for example, the Department of Information and Communications and Technology (DICT) is working with the National Council on Disability Affairs and the Philippine Web Accessibility Group (PWAG) to push websites to adhere to the standards of the WCAG.

Yet, in 2019, no Philippine government website hosted by the Government Web Hosting Service achieved web accessibility compliance despite adopting the WCAG in 2017.

There are positive developments. All countries in the region are signatories to the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Collaboration across various advocacy groups in the region are ongoing.

Also Read: Digital transformation is now real: How COVID-19 has sparked innovation in tech companies

In the Philippines, advocacy groups successfully compelled news programs to include sign language interpretation as part of their broadcasts covering the coronavirus pandemic as it is mandated by law in the country. Filipino Sign Language courses are now also available online.

SEA tech startups are also starting to target the disabled for their products and services. Kerjabilitas and Difalink in Indonesia provide accessible job search and recruitment platforms. Singapore’s Embodied Sensing manufactures assistive devices like Knoctify a sensor that lights up or vibrates to notify deaf people when someone knocks on their door.

Still, efforts to improve web accessibility have to intensify. The rapid growth in internet use in Southeast Asia proves how technology can offer services and bring convenience to the public. No one, especially people with disabilities, must be left behind. It’s high time that SEA stakeholders put pressure on site-owners and businesses to finally do the right thing.

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